Search advertising was revolutionary because it created a new science of ad relevance — the old targeting tools of demographics and psychographics seem like a shot in the dark by comparison. On the face of it, the value proposition of search advertising makes perfect sense — ads are chosen based on key word relevance — a consumer is searching for something, and search advertising delivers ads with produce/service offerings related to that search.

But despite this huge innovation, search advertising still provides a relatively low return on consumer attention — in ad brokering systems like Google AdWords, which are based on auctions, relevance is often in conflict with revenue per click. AdWords must balance the likelihood of a click — and its correlation with relevance — against the amount of revenue Google receives for that click. And advertisers who win the key word game can direct consumers to sites that may not be fully relevant to the actual intent of their searches.

Let’s look at a specific example. I’m thinking about buying a video camera, but I don’t want to spend too much. So I Google “best inexpensive digital video camera” (I may be cheap, but I still want the best I can get):

Google Video Camera Search

So now I have two options:

  1. Explore the “organic” results for reviews to help me choose which camera to buy
    1. Explore the “sponsored links,” i.e. the ads

The headlines of the sponsored links sound good — “Best Video Camera,” “Inexpensive Video Camera” — but if you try the search and click on any of the links, you’ll find that there’s no way to know whether you’re getting the “best” or the most “inexpensive” video camera.

What I’m getting is not the “best inexpensive digital video camera” but rather offers from the best gamers of the AdWords system with the deepest pockets.

But here’s the bigger problem: In my search for the video camera that I will ultimately purchase, money will change hands between advertisers and intermediaries as my attention — and my intention to buy — is “monetized.” But not a dime of that ad money will make it into my pocket.

It’s MY attention, MY intention, and MY purchase — Google and other intermediaries will make all the money, and I won’t see a dime.

In a previous meditation on this problem I wrote:

Imagine a Robin-Hood-like application that could somehow take a percentage of the revenue that we generate through our attention and redistribute it to us. Imagine if Google had to pay YOU for the attention that you give each AdWords advertiser when you click.

JellyfishThe other day I spoke to Brian Wiegand and Mark McGuire, who have dreamed up just such an application, which they call Jellyfish (more transparency, etc.). Here’s how Mark describes it in the Jellyfish blog:

I think we will soon reach a tipping point where consumers are going to realize that when it comes to their buying intentions, search intermediaries like Google/Yahoo/MSN (and a host of vertical engines) are keeping too much value for themselves (advertising $’s) without delivering a corresponding increase of value to the consumers participating in this system.

At Jellyfish, we want to be this tipping point. We think the way to do so is to fix the underlying advertising model to align the incentives of all three parties involved in a sale (buyer, seller and intermediary). The advertising market does a good job of maximizing the value your intention (GYM have PPC auctions that do this everyday); it just hasn’t done such a good job of fairly allocating that value among the key stakeholders. In our marketplace, we plan to allow the existing advertising system to set a value on your intent to buy, but that value (e.g., your intention currency) will flow to you, to the advertiser, and to us only when we do a good job of using that intent (and your historical buying intentions) to connect you to the product or service that is right for you. This will happen seamlessly and without you even thinking about it in terms of driving a maximum return on your buying intention. In the transparent marketplace at Jellyfish, advertising will transform into intention currency and that currency will be used to efficiently match buyers and sellers.

And this is the way we think the attention economy will start to catch on for the masses: By integrating its core concepts into an easy to use application that has direct, tangible benefits to the end consumer and advertiser alike. The average consumer may not think about it as intention currency, but we hope the increased value to that consumer will ensure that she continues to come back each time she has intent to buy something online as opposed to just an intent to search for information.

Brian and Mark shared with me the details of how Jellyfish works, which got me more jazzed than I’ve been in a while about the prospect of some game changing evolution. I promised not to disclose the details pre-launch, but that should happen any day now, and I’m eager to delve in once they’re live.

The folks at AttentionTrust have of course been all over the return on attention issue — in fact, they have an interview with Mark.

What we need to really change the attention game — and to dramatically increase advertising’s return on consumer attention — is a way for AVERAGE PEOPLE to increase their skin in the game “seamlessly and without you even thinking about it.” We’ll soon see whether Jellyfish can seize this opportunity.